This week, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling related to the ‘obviousness’ test in patent filing. The case – KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc. (PDF) – hinged on whether an automatic adjustment device for an accelerator pedal created by KSR infringed upon the patents of Teleflex. KSR argued that the combination of technologies was obvious, and that Teleflex could not claim royalties.
In order to maintain a fair and beneficial system, the condition that patents cover non-obvious innovations is highly important. The whole reason for granting patents is to foster innovation by granting temporary monopolies to innovators. Patents are meant to include enough information to allow a skilled practitioner to actually make the thing being patented. Under this system, inventors are meant to be willing to disclose the nature of what they have accomplished so that it might serve to aid the investigations of others. In exchange, they get legal rights over their invention for a defined period of time. This trade-off hardly makes sense when companies are permitted to patent trivial innovations, such as the much ridiculed patent awarded to Amazon.com for ‘one click shopping.’
Recently, there have been a good number of cases where the patent system is accomplishing something quite unlike this ideal. ‘Patent trolls‘ acquire patents of a broad and obvious kind, then wait for another company to release a successful product that arguably infringes on them. More often than not, the objective is simply to receive some kind of payment in return for ending the legal hassle. Of course, this interferes with the processes of innovation, as well as undermining the general credibility of the patent system. RIM and Vonage have both recently been targeted by such suits.
It seems sensible that patent offices should be more aggressive in their interpretations of what it means for an invention to be ‘novel’ and ‘non-obvious.’ As such, they would reduce the occurrences in which someone is unfairly granted rights over an idea that many other people have likely come up with, but not bothered to go through the process of trying to patent. It would also reduce the danger of patent trolling, particularly if the courts recognize that such behaviour can be predatory, and that the patent system ultimately exists to serve the public good.